When I first entered the world of religious higher education, I had no idea where to find reliable sources for the papers I was writing. The study tools most commonly used by laymen–study Bibles, concordances, etc.–were not enough; my professors required “academic sources,” primary and secondary sources that addressed the same topic I was writing about.
I had to figure out how to find not only scholarly sources, but relevant ones, on my own, and without a seminary library (I’m doing distance education). I want to share the process I use to find these sources with my readers, as I have found that Christianity in general and the Messianic movement in particular is woefully unread. Lots of people are making dogmatic statements, but their opinions have been formed in isolation. They have never honestly interacted with the whole body of scholarly literature that pertains to their idea.
The process generally works this way–at least, this is how I do it. Let’s say you are writing a paper on the Holy Spirit in John. So you go to Amazon.com and you search for “holy spirit John.” Look at all those books!–but how many of them are academic? For the new student, there is hardly anything about any of these books that hints as to whether or not they are reliable sources.
More seasoned students will recognize that guys like Billy Graham, John MacArthur, John Walvoord, and Charles Ryrie usually write at the popular level. Whatever level of education they may have, they are not generally academic writers.
Other students might recognize that the covers of most of these books are pretty; they are designed to have mass appeal. Scholarly books are usually ugly as sin.
So searching Amazon is not going to be a reliable way to find information on your topic. What now?
There are a few places you can start. For example, your paper has a narrow focus–the gospel of John. So find academic commentaries on John. The Christian Book Distributors catalog helpfully categorizes its commentaries into sections; devotional, pastoral, semi-academic, and academic commentaries are grouped together. The commentaries in the last two sections are the ones you want to start your journey in.
Another helpful set of books is the WATSA (What Are They Saying About) series. These books only list academic sources, and helpfully outline the specific contributions those sources have made to the specific field under discussion. In this case, there is a WATSA volume on John, so that is helpful.
So try to find some academic commentaries or the relevant WATSA book at your closest theological library. Plenty of undergraduate schools have decent enough theological libraries that they should have at least one or two academic commentaries on the book you are studying. Look for the New International Commentary on the Old/New Testament, the Word Biblical Commentary, Hermeneia, the International Critical Commentary (the newer ones), the New International Greek Testament Commentary, or the Anchor Bible Commentary. There are others, of course, but these sets are some of the most common and newest academic and semi-academic commentaries and you should be able to find one of them. If not, use inter-library loan.
Now in order to find information on the Holy Spirit, you want to find a thematic organization of material. So check the subject index and look for “holy spirit,” “spirit,” “paraclete” (a name John uses for the Spirit). Look for large page ranges that talk about your subject matter. There may even be a section in the introduction that lists prominent themes in John; check there. WATSA also often offers a section on specific themes in the book under discussion.
If you had followed this advice, you would find that right in the middle of What Are They Saying About John is a chapter on themes, with a subsection on the Holy Spirit. And lo and behold, there is a book listed as the primary resource on the subject–incidentally, Gary Burge’s The Anointed Community.
At this point, you have hit pay dirt. Burge cites every major participant in the conversation about the Holy Spirit in John up to his time. You now have a frame of reference and a bibliography from which you can keep track of the discussion up until Burge’s time–1987. Your local library can get many of the books Burge cites through inter-library loan.
However, you still have a problem. Burge’s monograph is dated. A lot can happen in 25 years, and there have been a lot of monographs on the subject released since then. Failure to reference anything after Burge will make your paper a “blast from the past”–totally irrelevant.
Now you have to get a little more creative. Knowing the names of reputable monograph series can help here–the Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, the Princeton Theological Monograph Series, the Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, Library of New Testament Studies, and others.
Incidentally, there is a 2005 monograph on the Holy Spirit in John in the SNTSMS, and another in the LNTS from a social-scientific perspective, written in 2004. (I found them by searching “holy spirit John” at amazon.com. Yes, once you know what you are looking for, it can be a useful tool.)
By now you should know the big names in the field you are studying; if you have access to JSTOR or some other journal database, you can search for recent articles by them. In all probability, the discussion is still ongoing, and there will be something recent. You can also search article titles for words that you know are hot-buttons in that particular field, like “paraclete.”
Finding a relatively recent monograph or journal article on your subject and checking the citations or bibliography will get you another set of sources you can try to get your hands on through inter-library loan. Now you have pre-Burge and post-Burge books on your subject–probably enough to write a relevant, well-researched paper. One final step remains, though, for those who want to be thorough: check the citations and bibliographies of the thirty or so (at the masters’ level anyway) books and articles you should have your hands on at this point, and make sure there are no important works you have missed.
Familiarizing yourself with the major works on the subject will give you a foundation from which do conduct your own study. You will be able to place your ideas within the framework of what has already been learned about the subject. You may disagree with the great minds that have come before you (it’s inevitable, as none of them agree with each other), but at least you will be able to avoid obvious pitfalls and have the resources you need to come up with an informed thesis.